June 15, 2015
By Jake Kurtz NPD
Horticulture and landscaping teacher
Saltfleet District High School, Hamilton

I am a horticulturist and I feel privileged to be one.

When I first got the opportunity to teach horticulture, I felt honoured. I also felt it was my duty to impart the love of plants, environment and the planet that I have been so privileged to enjoy. I soon realized this was harder to do than I might ever imagine.

Initially, I thought it best to attract students by enticing them with the lure of equipment. What 15-year-old wouldn’t want to strap 20 lbs. of screaming metal on his back and blow leaves, or drive a tractor? I soon realized that it is far more than that, and the industry needs to do more to attract the right people.

So what is the problem with getting the right people into horticulture? In a word, affluence. We live in a country which is very affluent, despite what people might say about taxes, health care or general government spending. With affluence comes a culture of entitlement.

My parents were part of the post-war boom in which you didn’t need to have a university education to succeed. It was a time when factory workers not only made a living wage, but a really good one. Despite this, my parents also grew up in a time when thrift and hard work were also valued. They were able to impart these values to me.

But this was an artificial economy, which could not be sustained, as demand for consumer goods rose, and unions demanded higher and higher wages. Resources became more expensive, manufacturing jobs went overseas and service industry jobs were farmed out to the least skilled or most eager to work. In some cases migrant workers, who had ample motivation to work for wages lower than Canadian workers, took up the slack. It was in this economy that I emerged as a fully fledged horticulturist from the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. Contrary to the rhetoric at the school at the time, I could not name my price and there were scant municipal or government jobs that paid what I expected.

I opted to start my own business. That was something I was ill prepared for, and ended the way one might expect of someone who was not prepared for the business world. I learned a lot though, and these are lessons I teach my students every day.

I did not, because of my parents, grow up to feel I was entitled. Yet I still feel that the industry that I love does not do enough to pay a living wage. Not everyone needs to make a $100,000 salary, but at the same time everyone deserves to make enough to be happy.

My point is that there is a disconnect between what the industry pays and what the labour is worth. Perhaps that is because the old adage, “Everyone is a gardener,” applies.  Perhaps it is because the industry does not sell itself as a skilled trade.

When I think back to my years as a renovator, I realize that I had no difficulty in charging rates that far exceeded what I made as a landscaper, despite the fact that I had far lower overhead. Maybe that was because things like electrical wiring and plumbing had a greater mystique for homeowners than grass cutting and retaining walls, or maybe it was because we, as an industry, had not done a good enough job of selling the mystique.

Landscaping is hard work and it should be paid for.

Hard work, low pay and seasonal employment are hardly things I would use to persuade my kid to do for a living, and yet I know there is so much satisfaction from seeing a yard transformed, a well pruned hedge, or a retaining wall built. That is enough for most people, if they have the money in pocket. I know that there are viable jobs for all the kids I teach, but if you really want them to choose landscaping over a BA., then you have to deliver on several fronts. These include:
  • Cultivate a culture of education in your company for your employees and your customers. When your customers see how much actually goes into maintaining or building their garden, they will probably want to pay you more; maybe as much as arborists. Swinging from a tree with a chainsaw in hand looks like stuff most homeowners would be glad to have someone else do, whatever the cost.
  • Embrace the apprenticeship program. I know I had enough paperwork to with employees, let alone dealing with the apprenticeship board and the College of Trades, but you receive a tax credit. It’s up to $2,000 per year for each eligible apprentice who completes in-class training and you get and retain skilled workers by doing so. Check out the website at http://gfl.me/x2xk.
  • Understand that you are dealing with parents who still view this industry as low rent and dirty work, seasonal and not viable or simply blue collar.
  • Work ethic is not something that can be taught in schools. You have to do it, because school is not real life, but your workplace is. As a teacher, 75 minutes a day is not enough to teach work ethic.
  • Pay and promote workers in your company. People you have trained will stick around, because they know there is a chance for upward mobility.
  • Find ways to keep the money flowing during seasonal lulls by keeping skilled workers on the payroll through snowplowing, taking on seasonal work, profit sharing, or moving into related trades.
  • Sell the trade as a trade. You do not just cut grass or lay pavers, you are a professional and deserve to be treated as such. Remember, if your customers could do it, then they wouldn’t hire you.
  • Ask your local school board where horticulture classes are run and send kids who work for you to those schools, so that we can do some of the training for you. You’re already paying for it, so take advantage. Check here for Specialist High Skills Major – Horticulture and Landscape programs, http://gfl.me/h18r.
  • Demand horticulture education in schools. Construction classes exist in almost every high school, but horticulture runs in only a handful.
Many of you reading this already do many of these things, but ask yourself which of the things on this list you could do a better job of, and if you could, how would it change your business, your life, your everything.